Just as sci-fi movies of the 1950s featuring aliens invading planet Earth reflected our fears of the nuclear age and the Cold War, it seems that some of today's movies are illustrating a pervasive feeling that we are no longer in control of the forces that affect our lives.
Case in point are two recent films coming out on DVD this week, " The Adjustment Bureau" (Universal, $29.98/ $39.98 Blu-ray Combo Pack, rated PG-13) starring Matt Damon, and " Unknown" (Warner Home Video, $28.98/$35.99 Blu-ray Combo Pack, rated PG-13) starring Liam Neeson.
Powerful and hidden forces are at work in both films as Damon's David Norris, an aspiring politician, and Neeson's Dr. Martin Harrison, a bio-technology scientist, face life-or-death struggles to figure out what's going on before they have their memories erased or are murdered.
"Bureau," written and directed by first-time filmmaker George Nolfi, has the better pedigree. It's based on a short story, "The Adjustment Team," by Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi author who also wrote "Blade Runner," "Minority Report" and "Total Recall." The premise here, according to Nolfi in his DVD audio commentary, is that "There are agents of fate out there that are making small changes to the world around you to get you to stay on course, stay on the plan they have for you."
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For David Norris, a congressman from Brooklyn, that means winning a race for U.S. senator and possibly becoming, in the future, president of the United States.
Yet after two brief but powerfully romantic encounters with a dancer (Emily Blunt) —one arranged by the Adjustment Bureau, but the second one an unforeseen departure from the plan — David tries to exercise his own free will and break with the path set up for him.
This forces the fedora-clad men of the Adjustment Bureau to use their supernatural powers to thwart the two lovers by trying to keep them apart.
If "The Adjustment Bureau" ponders such weighty matters as fate vs. free will, personal freedom vs. the greater good, and the power of a supreme being, "Unknown," set in Berlin, is a more familiar suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock vein.
It certainly traffics in such Hitchcockian devices as a hero, Neeson's Dr. Harrison, suffering from amnesia, who tries to get to the bottom of his predicament; two cool, beautiful and mysterious blondes (January Jones as Harrison's wife and Diane Kruger as a taxi driver who hails from Bosnia) who may or may not be what they seem, and visual information available to viewers but not to the protagonists.
When Dr. Harrison and his wife arrive at their hotel in Berlin, the site of a biotechnology conference, he realizes he's left a suitcase either in his taxi or back at the airport. But the taxi he takes to return to the airport (driven by Kruger's character) gets into an accident, crashes through a bridge and plunges into the icy waters of a local river.
When Harrison awakens from a coma four days later, he can no longer remember major aspects of his life. And even things he does recall — such as where he and his wife were staying — are challenged by his wife not recognizing him and the existence of another Dr. Harrison (played by Aidan Quinn) in his place.
All of these "unknowns" lead Harrison to question his own sanity and wonder if some larger, conspiratorial forces are at work, but to what purpose?
"Unknown" is directed with verve and precision by another relatively new director, Spain's Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous credits include the horror film "Orphan."